4 Things To Think About If You Want To Go To Harvard

How can a High schooler prepare to get into Harvard? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Vielka Hoy, Founder and Director at Vielka Hoy Consulting, on Quora.

When I was in high school, we had a guest speaker named Harvard Homeboy. My high school was a large, suburban high school, near-ish to Oakland and East Palo Alto. There were times in the school's history that it was known for being super violent and then times when things were more chill. I attended when things were more chill but I taught there when things were getting heated again.

Harvard Homeboy started his presentation dressed as an 80′s cholo, complete with the stance and slang. As he talked about street life, he took off a layer of clothes, stood up straighter, and dropped the slang in favor of what we hear in academia.

"He's going to say he went to Harvard," the person next to me whispered. "I saw him talk at my old school."

"Why did he have to do all that posing? Why can't he just talk about going to Harvard?," I asked. My neighbor shrugged.

By the end of his talk, he was dressed in a suit, standing up really straight, and talking about how even we, kids of color from a sometimes violent school, could go to Harvard. He forgot to mention that Harvard isn't full of homeboys, that it could cost $250,000 to attend, and they admit less than 5% of students who apply. He also didn't mention the culture clash students experience or the lack of appropriate support.

I think your question, like many others like it, is really telling of the college and economic climate and the importance many families place on going to a name school. In many ways, I don't object to that motivation--any motivation is good motivation. But there is the good lesson here: you can work tremendously hard and be in the best position to get the thing that you want, but you still may not get it. And judging by Harvard's admissions statistics, it is more likely that you won't get it. So you have to think about that more as: Wow, they may really lose out, but College X is gaining a superstar.

And keep in mind that Harvard, like most other schools, isn't solid on what they want. There is certainly an academic reputation to maintain, but apart from that, there isn't a list of specific clubs or athletics that a student must do in order to get in.

With that said, I think some of the reasons that students don't choose Harvard and schools like it when they are accepted don't make a ton of sense to me. I believe both thoughts are lending to students and families not determining fit appropriately. I give some tips here and here.

If after all of that, you still land on Harvard, here are some tips that can help with admissions (no guarantees):

  1. Present yourself well. The applicants to competitive schools have similar grades, activities, and test scores. You have to present your data points in a way that reflects you and how great you are. This includes the interview. Again, keep in mind that they are not looking for a specific phrase during this process. And it is important that you have other people read your statements and even practice your interviewing with you (skills you will need in life anyway).
  2. Apply to fly-in programs. Harvard, like many schools, gives students opportunities to interact with the school and be backed by the school. These programs occur around the time that you are submitting your application, for the most part. If you qualify, it's a great way to present yourself outside of your application and to know for certain, if the school is a good fit.
  3. Visit. Even if you do not participate in a fly-in program, visit! Most schools look really favorably on visits. If you are not near Harvard, you can email to ask good questions or even do a virtual tour. Even with virtual tours, I would still follow-up with email questions.
  4. Know the school. Do as much as you can to understand the school and why it is unique. There should be items in there that really speak to you, especially if it's a good fit. When you have opportunities (e.g. Harvard essay, visit, interview), speak to those things that really speak to you.
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